On the first Sunday of this February, Americans may remember the valorous acts of four Army chaplains on February 3, 1943.
Very early that day, a German torpedo detonated on the starboard (right) side of the United States Army Transport (USAT) Dorchester.
Eighteen minutes later the ship slipped into the deep water of the north Atlantic. Of the 904 service men, merchant seamen, sailors and civilian workers on board, only 229 survived.
This was the largest loss of personnel on a US flagged merchant vessel during World War II.
The Final Voyage
Built in 1926, the 368-foot Dorchester was a 5,649-ton luxury coastal liner that sailed between Boston and Miami.
When America entered World War II, the War Shipping Department requisitioned the 368-foot ship in 1942 and converted it into a troop transport.
Placed under the command of Merchant Marine Capt. Hans Danielson, the Dorchester departed St. John’s, Newfoundland on January 29, 1943 for an Army base at Narsarsuag, Greenland.
As part of convoy Surface Group 19 (SG-19), the ship joined two other freighters and three US Coast Guard cutters providing escort protection.
This was the Dorchester’s fifth – and final – voyage.
The convoy left Canada for Greenland on a north-to-northeast heading across a stretch of sea referred to as Torpedo Junction.
Once in open water, fog and freezing temperatures shrouded the convoy. Ice on the ships slowed them to a mere 10 knots.
Despite the secrecy surrounding the convoy’s departure and destination, the Germans were aware and ordered four submarines, or U-boats, to hunt down the convoy.
Lieutenant Commander Karl-Jurg Wachter, the commander of U-233, found it.
Coming to the surface to avoid detection, Wachter used the fog and darkness to study the silhouettes of the ships.
Selecting a ship 1000 yards away, Wachter ordered the firing of three torpedoes.
Seventy seconds later, one found its mark,
A Race Against Time
At 12:55 am the Dorchester shuddered violently when the torpedo detonated on her starboard side in the stern (rear) of the ship.
Dozens died from the detonation; dozens more drowned as icy water rushed in. The screams of doomed men and the smell of gunpowder and ammonia quickly filled the air.
Within a minute the stricken Dorchester was listing (leaning) 30 degrees to starboard.
Panic stricken men struggled to lower lifeboats, many of which had been destroyed by the explosion or frozen in place due to the frigid conditions.
For many, donning a lifejacket and jumping into the water was their only hope of survival.
In the eighteen minutes it took for the Dorchester to sink, Army Chaplains Lt. George L. Fox, Lt. Alexander Goode, Lt. John Washington and Lt. Clark Poling helped the wounded, distributed life preservers and said prayers as they helped others to abandon the ship.
When four terrified soldiers appeared without life jackets, the four chaplains gave them theirs.
“It was the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven,” John Ladd, a survivor, later related.
Minutes later the Dorchester’s bow rose above the surface and began its descent to the bottom.
Many survivors said they saw the four chaplains braced against the slanting deck with their arms linked as the ship went down.
Four Chaplains Day
In the aftermath of their sacrifice, many believed the four men of faith should be awarded the Medal of Honor. However, on December 19, 1944 they were each posthumously awarded Purple Hearts and Distinguished Service Crosses.
In 1948 Congress designated February 3 as “Four Chaplains Day.”
Since its construction in 1993 at the intersection of Jackson Avenue and Transmission Line Road on Joint Base Lewis-McChord-Main, the Four Chaplains Memorial Chapel has commemorated these men.